Carol Gentry

Health News Florida Special Correspondent

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four  decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.

After serving two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, Gentry worked for a number of newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), the Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.  She was a Kaiser Foundation Media Fellow in 1994-95 and earned an Master's in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1996.  She directed a journalism fellowship program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for four years.

Gentry created Health News Florida, an independent non-profit health journalism publication, in 2006, and served as editor until September, 2014. She and Health News Florida joined WUSF  in 2012. 

Gentry retired in the summer of 2017. Contact Health News Florida Editor Julio Ochoa at 813-974-8633 or by e-mail.

Ways to Connect

A Tallahassee doctor accused of sexual misconduct by five women patients has turned down a deal with the Florida Board of Medicine that would let him practice if he treats only men.

Family practitioner Edwardo Williams said that limitation – which was imposed as an emergency restriction last August – makes him unemployable.

“Because of the emergency restriction, I was basically unemployable," he said. "I am broke, I have no money to go anywhere else.” 

ZocDoc.com

After expressing frustration, the Florida Board of Medicine on Friday accepted a settlement that allows a controversial surgeon to continue in practice without interruption.

Orthopedic surgeon Alfred Bonati, who attracts patients from all over the country to Bonati Spine Institute north of Tampa, had been charged with mishandling four cases, leaving patients with permanent disabilities.

Florida Board of Medicine

On his website, Dr. Alfred Octavius Bonati is described as a pioneer in relief of back pain, creating a type of microsurgery that requires no general anesthesia or hospital stay. 

His ads say he’s done 45,000 of the procedures with a 94-percent success rate. Patients from all over the country offer testimonials on YouTube.

Florida Legislature

 After an emergency trip to the hospital, some patients find a nasty surprise in their mailbox -- bills their insurer didn't pay. Florida law protects some patients from this but not others.

Those in an HMO would see all their bills covered: ambulance, hospital, and doctors. But those who have another type of health insurance could be slapped with astronomical bills. They could have collection agents calling to get whatever their plan didn't pay.

Florida House of Representatives

A bill designed to protect patients from unexpected charges for emergency treatment – so-called “balance billing” -- passed the powerful House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

But its future remains uncertain amid opposition from the Florida Medical Association and Florida Hospital Association.

Health-care providers who aren’t in a contract with an insurer say they shouldn’t be bound by what that insurer wants to pay. Insurers say they shouldn’t be forced to pay more than is reasonable.

WLRN

Bills aimed at helping patients save money on contact lenses and confront fewer hurdles in access to drugs passed the Florida Senate Health Policy Committee on Monday. The panel also passed a bill to crack down on rogue clinics that escape state oversight by taking only cash.

Here are details:

Facebook.com

Mari Velar, who has lupus and osteoporosis, has bones as fragile as butterfly wings. 

To keep them from breaking, she depends on an IV drip of a bone-strengthening fluid, which costs a lot more than pills. Whenever she has a new plan or new doctor, she has to switch to the cheaper therapy until she begins to itch.

“In order to appease the doctor, I have to try the drug and show them the hives and prove to them that I cannot take the drug,” says the 54-year-old Tampa woman.

USF Health News

When federal money’s on the table, most states go for it like coupon-clippers at a closeout sale.

But studies show that when it comes to seeking federal money, Florida holds back, particularly in health care. Sometimes, the state changes its mind later and asks for its share of the money, only to discover that it’s too late; other states have made off with it.

Florida Legislature

Florida business groups, insurers, and hospitals are pushing state officials to accept billions of dollars in federal funds to cover the low-income uninsured.

But when the 2015 legislative session opens next Tuesday, this impressive coalition will run into Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican who chairs the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

Wikimedia Commons

When the 2015 legislative session begins next week, many of the state’s decisions on health care for the poor are on hold as state and federal Medicaid officials negotiate over funding, behind closed doors. Billions of dollars are at stake.

When it comes to health-care funding, Florida’s in a funny position. The state has twice turned down billions of dollars from federal Medicaid that would have covered care for about a million poor Floridians.

This year may be no different.

Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services

The nation’s Medicaid chief said Tuesday the federal funds Florida hospitals have depended on to pay for the uninsured will not be arriving any more.

There is “no way” that Florida’s “Low Income Pool” program will continue when it expires in June, said Eliot Fishman, director of the Medicaid division of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  “Not in its present form.”

Fishman’s message blows a hole in Gov. Rick Scott’s budget, which includes $2 billion in federal funds for the Low Income Pool, or “LIP.” Half of the LIP is federal matching funds.

Florida Board of Medicine

A long-time Miami-area psychiatrist who prescribes heavy-duty drugs in abundance has not been doing it safely, the Florida Board of Medicine said Friday.

Dr. Francisco J. Pages, charged with mismanaging the care of nine patients, needs to be evaluated to see what his knowledge level is, the board decided at a meeting in Stuart. Pages needs training to make up the deficits and close supervision by another psychiatrist for at least two years, the board said.

The Back Center (archive)

After emotional testimony from three former patients, the Florida Board of Medicine revoked the  license of a Central Florida pain doctor charged with sexually molesting six women.

Dr. Albert Esmailzadeh was accused of committing the abuse while practicing at clinics in Melbourne, Daytona Beach and Altamonte Springs between 2010 and 2013. Since then, he has been restricted to treating male patients under an emergency order from the Florida Department of Health.

Barry Gutierrez/NPR

  Doctors’ offices and others can charge patients $1 a page for copies of their medical records under a rule change adopted by the Florida Board of Medicine early Friday. The increased fee applies even if the records are kept and sent electronically.

The rule previously set the maximum for patients at a lower amount for lengthy records: $1 a page for the first 25 pages, and 25 cents a page thereafter. 

The Back Center (archive)

A Central Florida doctor accused of molesting six women patients – sometimes while he was injecting pain medicine into their spine – is expected to receive the ultimate punishment Friday from the Florida Board of Medicine.

The board, meeting in Stuart, is expected to revoke the license of Dr. Albert Esmailzadeh, 49, a certified pain specialist.  That is the recommendation from Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben, who held hearings several months ago.

Tampa General Hospital

Hillsborough County hospitals are scheduled to lose more than $151 million a year in funds for care of the uninsured beginning June 30, according to a report released Thursday.

The scheduled changes to two revenue streams “represent a tremendous loss of federal funding to the county and pose a significant risk,” warns the report by the Community Justice Project, part of Florida Legal Services.

Statewide, the coming annual loss will be $2.1 billion, estimates co-author Charlotte Cassel.

Carol Gentry / Health News Florida

With open enrollment for health insurance ending in just two weeks, the push is on to get everyone who qualifies signed up. But some of the uninsured are balking, and it’s not only the so-called “young invincibles” who think they don’t need it.

Gary Babcock of Clearwater, for example, is neither young nor invincible.  He’s 55, with diabetes so severe he has to give himself daily insulin shots.

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At his income level, he could choose from several Affordable Care Act plans with no premium, fully subsidized.

University of Washington Health

For more than 40 years, there’s been a drug that can stop a heroin overdose in its tracks, if someone gives the drug in time.  

And it turns out that the same drug works for patients who overdose on prescription painkillers such as morphine or OxyContin --drugs called opiods because they mimic the action of opium.

Patient advocates say many deaths from accidental overdoses of prescription painkillers or heroin could be averted simply and at little expense if there were wider distribution of a drug the drug called nalaxone,  or its better known brand name of Narcan.

Georgetown Health Policy Institute

Florida’s “safety-net” hospitals – the ones that provide the most charity care -- received another in a series of depressing projections Wednesday in a report from Florida Legal Services.  

Taken together, the three reports issued to date by the patient-advocacy organization describe a pending loss of $2 billion a year to the state’s health-care providers for the poor. Federal funding that has propped them up is scheduled to end June 30, Florida Legal Services said.

The Affordable Care Act requires that everyone who can afford health insurance should buy it – or there’s a penalty on their federal taxes.

H & R Block, a major player in the tax-preparation industry, decided to open its doors Thursday to answer questions for those who wonder if they owe money or should be worried about it.

Nearly a million Floridians found coverage through the federal marketplace last year. Many others, who could have but didn't bother, may have to pay up as part of their federal income tax filing, due April 15.

One of the top Medicare billers in the country, Central Florida cardiologist Asad Qamar, is the target of two lawsuits accusing him of systematic Medicare fraud, including padding bills and performing unnecessary procedures.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s civil division has joined in the whistleblowers' cases on behalf of Medicare and Medicaid taxpayers.  The lawsuits, filed in 2011 and 2014, were kept secret while the DOJ investigated and debated whether to join them. 

Credit Florida's Second Judicial Circuit

Florida Healthcare Plus, a Medicare HMO with 10,000 members, was declared insolvent Wednesday and turned over to state authorities.

In such cases, state and federal officials help patients move into other health plans or to traditional Medicare. More information is expected on that today or Friday.

The state Division of Financial Services took over the Coral Gables-based plan immediately after the order was issued Wednesday by Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds in Tallahassee. DFS is expected to sell off the company’s assets Jan. 1.

North Florida Women's Physicians

Florida’s tough new safety rule for medical-office surgery, years in the making, has been delayed at the last minute by an outcry from obstetrician-gynecologists.

The OB-Gyns appeared Friday at the Florida Board of Medicine, which was to have passed the safety rule that day, to ask for an amendment to spare them from some of the provisions.  Board members decided instead to postpone the issue while they figure out what to do.

Carol Gentry / WUSF

Clearwater internist Harry S. Wilks should undergo psychological testing to see whether he is still mentally sharp enough to practice safely, the Florida Board of Medicine said today.

Time is of the essence, board members said, since Wilks is currently practicing without supervision. They voted to require that the evaluation be conducted and reviewed by the middle of next month.

Florida Board of Medicine

A Clearwater internist who was described as unsafe to practice because of mental decline will try to persuade the Florida Board of Medicine that it isn’t true at a hearing today.

Dr. Harry S. Wilks, 72, is expected to appear at the meeting in St. Petersburg to answer questions, accompanied by his attorney Lester Perling.  They are armed with psychiatric and neurological evaluations that they say will refute those presented by the state.

Carol Gentry, Health News Florida

When the Affordable Care Act’s federal marketplace opened last year, Beth and Doug Warner of St. Petersburg asked a navigator to enroll them. But they discovered their income wasn’t high enough to get a subsidy.

Without one, Doug Warner said, the policy for the couple would cost $700 a month. “Basically the choice was, ‘Keep the roof over your head or buy healthcare.'”

It’s one of the great ironies of the health overhaul. Floridians most in need of health insurance -- adults below the poverty line -- are often blocked from coverage the Affordable Care Act provides.

(Editor's Note: It's Medicare enrollment season, now through Dec. 7, and beneficiaries are trying to decide on a plan. Health News Florida’s Carol Gentry, who has covered Medicare for many years, is seeing the federal program from a new point of view: as a beneficiary. Her first commentary, which aired Oct. 9, was "Medicare's Complexity Can Be Scary." The second one, "Which Medicare Path Do I Take?" is below).

Florida's insurance officials are recommending a state takeover and liquidation of Florida Healthcare Plus, a Medicare Advantage plan accused of submitting $25.2 million in phony bills to Medicare and Florida Medicaid.

Associated Press

Florida Medicaid has spent at least $30.6 million in the past year on costly drug treatments for Hepatitis C, according to records from the Agency for Health Care Administration. 

Most of the spending was for Sovaldi, an antiviral approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2013. It was fast-tracked after clinical trials showed it had a high cure rate for patients in advanced stages of liver disease who were infected with the most common strain of the Hepatitis C virus.

Medicare Advantage plans that draw a lot of their enrollment from the poor side of town say they're at a disadvantage on the government's five-star ratings scale, which commands respect and governs pay.

One company pressing the issue is WellCare Health Plans, based in Tampa. Its Medicare Advantage plans are rated at 3 or 3 1/2 stars, below the 4-star minimum required for plans to qualify for bonus payments. Plans' premium and bonus payments are kept confidential, but other media report that the bonuses amount to a few hundred dollars per member.

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